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  • Web Site Aesthetics:The Search for Preference Factors
  • Muzeyyen Pandir and John Knight

Aesthetics has been dominated by intellectual speculation rather than empirical investigation. Aristotle's aesthetics judgments, which have dominated the Western world's aesthetics studies, were based on subjective judgments of beauty [1]. It was generally believed that beauty could not be measured. Berlyne rejected this idea. He conducted psychological experiments with people in order to reach an objective understanding of art [2,3] from subjects' responses to paintings, visual patterns and sound sequences. Berlyne claimed that there was an appreciable degree of consistency among aesthetic responses of differing individuals [4].

Berlyne formed an aesthetic theory suggesting that the preference for any stimulus is related to its arousal potential. He proposed the most important factors of arousal potential as being structural properties of stimuli. These properties include complexity, novelty and ambiguity [5] and Berlyne called these properties collative variables. His theory argues that there is an inverted-U relationship between preference and arousal potential. This means that increases in arousal potential increase aesthetic pleasure. As arousal potential increases, however, it reaches an uncomfortable level and peaks, and pleasure starts to decline. Conversely, the theory suggests that stimuli with moderate arousal potential are the most pleasurable.

We conducted a pilot study to investigate aesthetic preference of web sites by applying Berlyne's aesthetic theory. The experiment focused on judgments of the appearance of the web sites. Twelve subjects ranked 12 web sites in terms of their complexity, pleasingness and interest. In addition, they rationalized their choices through verbal reports.

Overall, the results of the experiment do not support the inverted-U relationship between perceived complexity and aesthetic pleasure that Berlyne suggested. However, his thesis concerning moderately complex stimulus was supported: Simple and moderately complex web sites were preferred. The least-liked web sites were those with high degrees of complexity.

We observed that subjective factors played a significant role in preference, in comparison to structural factors. Subjects often justified their preferences in terms of their personal interests and lifestyle. For example, web sites that featured subjects' personal interests and tastes, such as outdoor pursuits or retro styling, were preferred. The primacy of content in determining aesthetic responses resonates with previous studies [5]. Semantic factors also affected preference. Some web sites were disliked because their meanings were not understood or because their messages were disliked. This finding echoes those reported by Martindale et al. [6].

The agreement among the judgments was statistically calculated. These results showed that there was agreement on perceived and objective measures of complexity. Pleasure judgments were similarly analyzed and levels of disagreement were calculated. Once again, the results highlight individual differences in subjects' preferences as well as the difficulty of analyzing subjectivity with empirical methods. In addition, previous studies showed that differing aesthetic responses pertained to demographic factors such as age, gender, education and religious background [7] and to social differences such as lifestyle [8]. Despite these limitations, the findings were helpful for web designers and led to consideration of the differences between interactive and traditional media. Such research provides a pragmatic and novel way of considering design and understanding users.

The findings for interest judgments do not support Berlyne's theory [9]. They show a negative correlation between complexity and interest. According to these results, the most interesting web sites were simple ones. Moreover, in the verbal reports, a relationship between interestingness and curiosity was observed. Subjects mentioned that in the simple (the least complex) web sites, a lack of information made them curious and inspired them to explore the site in depth.

Berlyne [10] observed a link between curiosity and uncertainty and suggested that curiosity was a form of motivation to learn more about a source of uncertainty. However, people may not be curious about everything of which they do not have sufficient knowledge. There needs to be another factor for curiosity, other than uncertainty. The findings suggest that interest may play such a role.

In contrast to Berlyne and his collative variables, this study suggests the importance of individual differences in determining the aesthetic responses. Individual differences include physiological differences as well as cultural and social factors such as fashion. Different tastes and...


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